Pitt County has lately tended to vote Democrat for president and U.S. Senate. New Hanover County has tended to vote Republican. But both of these counties — two of the most populous east of Interstate 95 — are pivotal to Donald Trump’s chances in North Carolina.
The Republican presidential candidate is expected to do well in rural parts of the state, but he needs strong support here to counter Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s advantages in the Triangle and Mecklenburg County.
Trump’s North Carolina rally schedule underscores the importance of Eastern North Carolina. Since early August, he’s held rallies in Wilmington, Fayetteville and, most recently, in Greenville on Tuesday.
Once reliably Republican, North Carolina has emerged as an important swing state in presidential elections. It will be difficult for Trump to win in November if he doesn’t carry the state.
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Eastern North Carolina is largely rural, with a few mid-sized cities and a strong military presence. Democrats running statewide tend to win counties that run along the Virginia border down to Wilson and Pitt, while Republicans win southeast central and coastal counties.
East Carolina University in Greenville is a reservoir of potential GOP voters that Republicans want to tap.
Students at ECU “lean toward conservative,” said Kim Cotten West, the GOP chairwoman for the state’s 3rd Congressional District. “We want to capitalize on that.”
It’s easy to find white ECU students who say they’re considering Trump or are definitely in his corner.
Kayla Reid, a freshman from Creedmoor, said she comes from a conservative family and intends to vote a straight Republican ticket.
Reid, 18, called Trump “a strong businessman” who will get the country out of debt.
“He’s anti-Clinton,” she said. “He’s the safer vote.”
Kristen Boretti, a 23-year-old graduate student from Onslow County who voted for Mitt Romney four years ago, said she is so far undecided.
She questions Trump’s social policies, including his immigration proposals, and said Clinton “is not that great at foreign policy.”
“It’s sad for me that it’s come down to these two,” Boretti said.
ECU students have become some of the Republican National Committee’s most reliable volunteers, and those students have been talking about ways to register and turn out the student vote. Pitt County will have an early voting site in an ECU building about five blocks from the main campus.
Republican volunteers have talked about working through campus organizations to reach the university’s more than 22,000 undergraduates. “That’s a lot of kids,” said Alyssa Pleshe, a 21-year-old ECU senior from Cary who’s collecting voter information for the RNC. “That’s a lot of people to vote.”
Sonny McLawhorn, Pitt County Democratic Party chairman, said support for Republican candidates is stronger now than when he was a student in the 1960s and 1970s, but he called Republican strength among students “about equal” with that of Democrats.
The RNC has workers and volunteers out in neighborhoods knocking on targeted voters’ doors, leaving Trump door hangers and gathering information about voter intentions for November.
As they move through the neighborhoods, they don’t knock on every door. They’re concentrating on contacting conservative and Republican-leaning unaffiliated and swing voters, said Kara Carter, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. The party also flags people who are registered but don’t vote in every election.
The RNC is in the midst of adding to its field operation in the state and will soon have 160 paid staff here in addition to 700 trained volunteers who have committed to weekly progress goals and have some responsibilities for organizing other volunteers.
On an afternoon in late August, the team of ECU students fanned out through the Club Pines neighborhood in Greenville to collect voter information.
This week, out on a walk through the neighborhood, Robert Lessard said a campaign volunteer knocked on his door asking who he’d vote for.
Lessard, a retiree from Maine, is unaffiliated and proudly calls himself a moderate, “neither left-wing nor right-wing, not liberal or conservative.”
Lessard, 73, said he has not decided who he’ll vote for in November, but said he’ll end up voting for the candidate who is least objectionable.
“It will be anti as opposed to pro,” he said of his vote. “I’m sorely disappointed with both choices.”
The action was much the same in New Hanover County on another August afternoon, when a group of four workers trooped through suburban neighborhoods in Wilmington.
Will Knecht, 50, chairman of a Pennsylvania manufacturing company, said voters he has contacted usually say they’re voting for Trump. He rarely finds a Clinton supporter, and not many people are undecided.
The battle isn’t confined to suburbs. The New Hanover volunteers say they work downtown too. They’re more likely to find Democrats there, said volunteer Austin Marquette, a 20-year-old Cape Fear Community College student.
There are slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Hanover, and unaffiliated voters outnumber both, resulting in an electorate with wide-ranging views.
Lori Allois, a 35-year-old certified public accountant, described herself as a die-hard Bernie Sanders fan as she walked her dog in downtown Wilmington one evening. She doesn’t think Trump will be a good president, so the vote she casts will be against him rather than for Clinton.
Paul Johnson, a 60-year-old maintenance man, said he’s voting for Clinton. She has proved herself in Congress, he said.
“I think Trump will take things backwards,” said Johnson, who is African-American. “The United States was supposed to be built for all people. Under his administration, Trump would be going backward rather than forward.”